The "booms" of 20th C popular science

Just before Easter, I co-ran a small conference entitled Science Communication in the 20th Century: The “Booms” of Popular Science Publishing. I almost don’t need to blog about, as Scott Keir’s already done such a thoughtful (and bloody funny) job over at Nature Network. You can also read a short piece by me posted last week, inspired by a slide used in one of the talks (of a 1958 girls chemistry set). Still, I thought it was worth typing up some notes, and I could provide a link to a googledoc of the abstracts for anyone who’s interested.

In stumbling around for some sort of theme for an academic(ish) event on popular science, my co-organiser, Dr Hauke Riesch, and I (after much debate) settled first on the 20th century, then more specifically on that century’s so-called “booms” of pop sci publishing. The initial idea was to to devote the morning to discussions of early 20th C popularisations of relativity, with an afternoon on more recent “Hawkin/ Dawkins” matters. However, our call for papers tended seemed to attract papers emphasising other trends or moments in popular science. Perhaps this says something about how important these apparently high profile booms really were, or maybe researchers are just bored by them by now.

I wanted to keep our definition of “popular science” reasonably loose, to include a range of media, but Hauke was adamant “popular science” means books. In the end we compromised with the word “publishing”. As the papers presented at the conference demonstrated very neatly, however, you can publish all sorts of things, and publishing about one medium often gets tangled up in discussion of another. So maybe I got my way after-all (though the previous event did include discussion of songs, I missed the singing). We ended up with a fair bit of discussion of magazines, toys and, via a set of books, blackboards. So, the photo I’m illustrating this post with isn’t a big pile of Dawkins and Hawkins. It isn’t a dusty pile of early copies of New Scientist either, but a snipped from a 1980s computer magazine.

Einstein vs Zombies FTW

To move onto the day’s content: I’ll give some notes on Peter Bowler’s plenary, and then say something about the event as a whole. I won’t dwell on the papers themselves. You can read more in the abstracts, and google the speakers to see if they’ll give you a copy of their paper (i.e. don’t bug me for papers, I don’t have them). We’re looking into publishing a collection of the papers as a special edition of a journal, so the researchers might have a chance to develop their points elsewhere anyway.

Peter Bowler’s talk was truly lovely. As Scott’s blogpost puts it so nicely, Peter seemed to relish the word boom (which really is a fantastic word). More substantively, I think Peter really got to the heart of the issue. Much of his talk referred to inter-war science magazine publishing which he argued was not nearly as much as a boom area as it was sometimes made out as. Bowler started with the example of Conquest magazine, founded in 1919 under much rhetoric on the demand for public information about science. It was soon absorbed by Discovery though, a much more “top-down” publication, very much organised by the academy (edited by one CP Snow) and ran at a loss. 1929 saw the emergence of Armchair Science, once again under much rhetoric of a new boom in public interest, and once again of limited financial success. He showed us a great slide of its cover, with headlines including “Why eat bad cheese but not bad meat?” “What is noise?” and “Wonders of the night sky”. From these studies, Bowler went on to talk more broadly about where the booms are imagined to stem from suggesting it was, in some respects, double-sided. There is a rhetoric of a public-led boom (i.e. fulfilling a desire from potential readership) and also a science-led one (i.e. suggesting the ‘inspirational power’ of a particular scientific idea, person or discovery drives the boom): a sort of conflation of both bottom-up and top-down models of science communication. Peter noted the ‘modern synthesis’ as a scientific moment which interestingly didn’t provoke any sense of publishing boom, maybe because by then anything connected with evolution was seen as ‘old hat’, or maybe because (as a synthesis) it couldn’t be easily tied to a single character like relativity and Einstein. He also reflected on three publishing areas which he thought could be seen as a popular science boom of the interwar period: serials of popular science books, such as Huxley/Well’s The Science of Life which was serialised in thirty fortnightly parts; “boys books”, highly illustrated pieces celebrating warfare, exploration and wonder largely marketed as prizes and Christmas presents; and self education guides such as the Home University Library, which would were general knowledge guides but often stressed scientific content in their PR.

What then was the key topic of the day? Well probably not booms, despite Bowler’s beautiful set up of the topic, the word “booms” was occasionally referred to, but rarely explored in any depth by the papers which had other things to say (this isn’t a failing in the papers, and maybe Bowler said it all). The rhetoric and cultural standing of mystery with respects to popular science was, for me, was the most dominant theme, though I’m sure other delegates would disagree.

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